In an era when African-Americans rarely had the opportunity to acquire commanding positions on vessels, Absalom Boston stood out as the first whaling ship captain to sail with an all-black crew. On whaling ships, captains were generally respected, but not admired. However, Boston was so popular that the crew of the schooner Industry memorialized him with a ballad.
Born and raised in Nantucket, Mass., Boston spent his early years working in the whaling industry. In 1822, Boston became captain of the Industry and led his crew on a six-month whaling voyage. They returned with 70 barrels of oil and the entire crew safely home.
Boston was captain at a time when African-Americans were able to find work in the maritime industry. At the height of the whaling industry in the mid-1800s, about 700 black men were either harpooners or officers on American whaling ships. A few, like Boston, sailed as captains.
Black men were more likely to be promoted on whaling ships than merchant vessels and assume more responsibility. One black owner of a boardinghouse for seamen noted that on a whale ship, “A coloured man is only known and looked upon as a man, and is promoted in rank according to his ability and skill to perform the same duties as the white man.”
According to the Nantucket Historical Association, blacks had been a part of Nantucket’s population since the early 18th century. The first Nantucket census in which blacks were officially counted occurred in 1764. Out of a population of 3,570 individuals, 50 “Negroes” and 148 “Indians” were counted.
By the 1820 census the number of “coloreds” had increased to 274, according to the association’s research. Ten years later the names of Arthur Cooper, Samuel Harris, Absalom Boston, and Stephen Pompey appeared as heads of households in the census.
“These men and their families played leading roles in the development of cooperative race relations on the island and established an African Meeting House, one of the first black institutions in the nation,” according to the history association.
After the 1822 voyage, Absalom retired from the sea. He became a respected leader of the island’s black community, opened a store and served as trustee of the African Baptist Church. In 1845, he backed a campaign to integrate Nantucket’s public schools, filing a successful lawsuit to have his daughter admitted to high school.
|Absalom Boston’s house in Nantucket, Mass. (Credit: Nantucket Preservation Trust)|
When Boston died in 1855, he had amassed considerable real estate holdings and was likely the wealthiest African-American in Nantucket. Even though at the time of his death he was a successful business man and worked tirelessly to integrate the island’s communities, he was buried in a segregated cemetery.